Range stays focused after ‘banner week’

Nancy Norr, chair of Jobs For Minnesotans, speaks at a rally before on July 25 before a U.S. Forest Service listening session in Virginia. Norr testified before a U.S. House subcommittee on a 235,000 acre mining land withdrawal, and Congressman Tom Emmer's draft bill to strike down the withdrawal.

If it weren’t for an alert person at Minnesota Power more than three decades ago, this story probably ends right here.

A typo on the cover letter of Nancy Norr’s application landed it in an executive’s trash bin, until someone urged him to look at the resume. She landed the job, and thus, where the story continues for the next 30-plus years until Norr reaches her retirement on July 31.

Just think how different things could have been on the Iron Range and in northeastern Minnesota.

During her tenure, Norr and Minnesota Power became key players in the public-private economic development efforts of the region, the last 10 years spent as a founding member and face of the Jobs for Minnesotans group that is at the forefront of promoting the jobs PolyMet, Twin Metals and Enbridge’s Line 3 can bring.

It only took something monumental — like a global pandemic — to alter life enough for Norr to step back and truly take things in.

Nearing the age of 60, working since she was 15 and the last 31 years at Minnesota Power — the last year was filled with changes in routine, pace and an environmental shift that sent everything virtual, challenging some of her basic instincts as an extroverted personality in ways that are hard to imagine.

But it was enough for her to be ready for time with family, a trip to Ireland (hopefully), more tennis and maybe an opportunity in Ghana.

“It helped me look beyond these years,” Norr said in a recent phone interview, describing the last 18 months that, like most of us, removed her from the natural work environment of the office and into the work-from-home routine. “I was afraid of that separation — I’m naturally an extrovert. But you don’t know you’re still on the gerbil wheel until you get off the gerbil wheel.”

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Mark Phillips, now commissioner of the Department of Iron Range Resources, hired Norr at Minnesota Power in 1989. He didn’t toss her application, but rather gave it the second look and saw exactly what they were looking for: A good resume, a degree in economic development from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a financial background from the bank she was currently at in Superior, Wis.

Phillips was the utility’s economic development director and Norr was the first person he brought aboard.

“It was a great hire,” he said.

Norr’s career at Minnesota Power would take some twists and turns through different roles in regional development, media and communication and for the last decade on advocacy. She carved out a leadership role not only in the company, but the region through varied efforts and organizations.

In an interview, and through a letter sent to colleagues announcing her retirement, Norr reflected on those accomplishments and collaborations, which included:

• Being a founder of the Area Partnership for Economic Expansion (APEX) with 15 years on the Executive Committee

• Supporting the creation of Minnesota Power’s Community Advisory Panels, strengthening communication and relationships

• Leading Jobs For Minnesotans, advocating for responsible mining and energy projects

• Launching ALLETE Advocates, an initiative to educate, inform and engage employees

• Attracting and expanding industry and community additions: Cirrus Aviation corporate headquarters and production facilities, Involta colocation facility, a UnitedHealth supercenter, NorShor Theatre redevelopment, Central Minnesota Ethanol Co-op, Duluth Airport Terminal project, Lonza

manufacturing plant, and many other investments in economic vitality.

• Supporting MP’s economic development revolving loan fund with over $23 million in loans made to area businesses

• Receiving the Minnesota Vision Award for co-founding Positively Minnesota, currently known as the Minnesota Marketing Partnership

“She’s done a tremendous job and is a natural leader,” Phillips said. “If you look at all things she put together in her career — especially APEX and Jobs for Minnesotans — she’s led a lot of different regional efforts to support our economy.”

Norr credits Minnesota Power and its leadership team, including the now-retired executive Al Hodnik, for stepping in to help fill the economic infrastructure gaps in the region that have extended beyond the Arrowhead and into Todd, Morrison, Cass, Crow Wing and Pine counties.

“It’s just incredible when you look at the toolbox we have in this region and how Minnesota Power supported that,” she said. “I had the best job in the universe when you look at what I was able to commit my time and talents toward.”

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It was in 2012, more than two years after the federal Environmental Protection Agency found the draft Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine inadequate, that the first organized effort to snuff out the project was formed by environmental groups.

They were organized, well-funded and had the momentum swinging in their direction, while the Range groups supporting the effort were largely on their own. They needed the same level of organization and political capital, and in a largely unprecedented fashion at the time, business and labor joined forces.

The result was the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council and Minnesota Chamber of Commerce forming a group called Jobs for Minnesotans as a third party coalition to bring the influential unions and business communities under one umbrella, with an original goal of just a few press conferences a year supporting projects.

A few press conferences a year. Let that sink in for a moment.

Norr, who was “in the wrong room at the right time,” was asked to chair the group and knew right away she needed to build out a board of directors that could align their interests and influence to match what the opposition brought to the table.

“Communities were missing,” Norr said recently of the original board makeup. “They’re an important third leg of the stool for large-scale industrial projects that require a social license where they want to operate. Dave Lislegard was the first person we recruited.”

Lislegard, now the House 6B representative in the Minnesota Legislature, was an Aurora city councilor at the time. He described working with Norr as a “Bonnie and Clyde” partnership, one she reflects on as an “honor of a lifetime.”

They combined his passion and political instinct with her high-level organization to take Jobs for Minnesotans to heights the group never imagined in its infancy, hitting high notes of organizing seven bus loads of Rangers driving to a regulatory hearing and the late, fiery Tom Rukavina closing the show.

“It really did require a more advanced model to be successful,” Norr said. “You had to show up. You had to be at the hearings. You had to work the system.”

Norr, Liselgard, Jason George of the Local 49ers and others inside and outside Jobs for Minnesotans made frequent trips to Washington, D.C. to meet with lawmakers and defend mining legislation, culminating in them sitting in the U.S. House chamber as former Rep. Rick Nolan led passage of the PolyMet land exchange bill.

“Over the last 10 years I’ve had the privilege to work with Nancy as we traveled across this region, state and country educating and advocating individuals about the incredible mining opportunity in northern Minnesota,” Liselgard said. “Nancy’s commitment to excellence in everything she does made all of us better. Nancy’s positive impact on this region will be felt for years to come.”

“We’re going to miss her — a real champion for job creation in northeastern Minnesota,” said George, who still serves on the Jobs for Minnesotans board. “It’s a big loss, but we’re happy for her.”

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Retirement will be a major life transition for Norr, made a little easier from already spending more time at home.

At work, she’s leaving the economic development team “in great hands” with Frank Fredrickson and Arik Forsman, which makes the step back easier to take. She hopes the lasting legacy at the company will be the value of stakeholder engagement and sustained communication around the communities.

Norr leaves at a watershed moment for Iron Range leadership as retirements of Hodnik, Steve Giorgi of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools, Bud Stone of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce and Harry Melander, a founding member of Jobs for Minnesotans and executive director of the Minnesota Building Trades, create a seismic shift in leadership.

“I promise we didn’t collude on the decision,” she joked, and expressed excitement about the next generation as the lifeblood of the region.

“If you don’t get out of the way, you’re not going to have that infusion of energy, creative thinking and youth, and this is so exciting to me. The value of that is just incredible. I don’t think we know what that value is until they’ve been given the chance to make their mark.”

On the personal side, Norr is looking forward to more time with her children Peder and Annagrace. She’ll start retirement with a trip planned to Ireland in July as a continuation of a public history course she completed at the University of Minnesota-Duluth last spring, exploring ancient ruins and an archeology fascination she’s had since childhood.

If travel allows due to COVID-19, a future opportunity doing community development in Ghana exists, and she’s started a small limited liability company, Norr Community Solutions, if “something comes along that is interesting and professionally rewarding.”

That’s Nancy, the organizer. But she is feeling OK not filling the calendar up quite yet.

“The pandemic really did help teach me that time is precious and life is short — do this while you still have your health,” Norr said. “If I want 20 good years of good health and mental aptitude past my 60s, I need to get cracking.”

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